Fitness Articles

Hike Yourself Fit

The Rules of the Trail

I was watching a rerun of "Sex and the City" the other night, in which Carrie is visiting a new boyfriend, David. They’re enjoying a nice picnic on the grassy hillside, and David mentions that there are beautiful hiking trails all around the property. When Carrie, ever the city girl, confesses that she’s never been much of a hiker, David says he recently discovered that “hiking…is just walking”. On my couch in Ohio, I joined the collective groan of avid hikers everywhere (or the imagined collective groan, since avid hikers were probably out hiking instead of watching "Sex and the City" reruns). Sure, hiking involves walking, and both usually happen outside, but the similarities end there.

The term “hiking” implies an activity that occurs in the midst of nature, specifically on a trail, in a creek bed, on a mountain, or through the woods. Because of the terrain, hiking is almost always more physically challenging than walking, and burns more calories (around 350-400 per hour) as a result. Hiking can be a reward in itself, a means of transportation, or a purifying spiritual journey (more on that later). It can be fun, tiring, exhilarating, or challenging, and it’s always good exercise. To ensure that your hiking experience is safe and enjoyable, here are some tips to prepare you for your trek.

These Boots are Made for Hiking
One of the most important items you’ll need is a good pair of hiking boots that fit you well. Blisters and cramped toes can quickly turn a wonderful hike into a miserable event, so this item is worth a splurge. There are many styles of boots to choose from, from hiking sandals to steel-toed mountain boots. You’ll probably want to start somewhere in the middle. For hiking on well-maintained trails and smooth terrain, “hiking shoes” will be your best choice. These resemble heavy-duty cross-trainers, are easy to break in, and are comfortable to wear. For slightly more rugged hiking, choose “cross hikers”, which look like the quintessential hiking boot. They are built to withstand more abuse than hiking shoes, and are intended for rougher terrain, but you’ll need to wear them around for a few days to break them in.

What you wear on the rest of your body is important too. Most experts recommend that you skip the cotton and don the high-tech synthetics, which have the ability to wick moisture away from your skin while still being breathable. In the cold months, layer for warmth, and in the warm months, wear light-colored fabrics to repel bugs.

On your skin, bug repellant and/or sunscreen may be necessary in certain months and regions. Consider a repellant made from natural essential oils, such as Green Ban or Herbal Armor. The latter earned "Top Bug Spray" honors in 2006 (Camping Gear Awards), and boasts a National Home Gardening Club’s Seal of Approval for both effectiveness and consumer value. Many hiking experts recommend a wide-brimmed hat and loose-fitting, lightweight, breathable clothing if you’re worried about sun exposure.

Excess Baggage
If you’re just hiking a loop in the city park, you’ll probably have enough room in your pockets for all of your essentials (keys, ID card, cell phone, etc.). But if you’ll be hiking for hours, you might need a carry-on. Use a hip pack, which consists of a zippered compartment attached to a wide belt, when you’re on a short hike and just need a few small items. Day packs will hold slightly more and have shoulder straps (like a backpack), and are suitable for a full day of hiking. The downside is that they aren’t as comfortable as hip packs.

Watered Down
No, you can’t just stop and drink from the creek. Carry water with you always—even in cold weather—to prevent dehydration. For shorter hikes, a small water bottle that holds 24-32 ounces will work well. Attach it to your belt with a carabiner for easy access, or keep it in your backpack. If you’ll be out for hours, consider a hydration pack, which is commonly used by endurance runners and cyclists. A backpack with a built-in “bladder” (water bag) that is connected to a “drinking tube” (long, flexible straw), hydration packs make it easy to drink without stopping to open the backpack or even slowing down. Camelbak, The North Face, and Deuter are common brands.

Mother Nature Rules
Considering everything that Mother Nature is offering to you, the least you can do is to be considerate of her. Follow the golden rule of hiking: Pack out whatever you pack in (i.e. don't leave anything behind). If you’re hiking on a maintained trail, stay on the trail, sparing the vegetation. And if you’re bring food, snacks and drinks along, make sure the only critter you feed is yourself.

The Places You'll Go!
Now that you know what to wear, what to bring, and how to behave, all you need to figure out is where to go. First, check out nearby state parks. You can get information about their trails (and potential fees) on the web. If you live in a city, don’t forget about your nearby city parks—many have hiking trails through wooded areas. For a comprehensive list of trails near you, check out these websites: And while you’re mapping out your journey, make sure you know how to find your way home. Stick to your route, and bring a compass or GPS device.

In addition to all of the physical benefits it offers, hiking can also be a profound spiritual experience. Hiking gives us the chance to reconnect with the natural world, and ourselves, during a much-needed break from the daily grind. Hiking supplies the space to ponder, contemplate, and dream while awake. For all of these reasons, everyone should try hiking at least once. So, I mean it in the nicest way possible, when I say, "Go take a hike!"

Learn More
10 Things to Take on a Hike
7 Good Reasons to Try a Trail Workout

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Member Comments

  • Great article, but anyone considering hiking needs to also take safety issues into consideration.
  • I used to love hiking (and camping) until recent years where there have been far too many ticks crawling around. Even if clothing is sprayed with repellent like permethrin, they seem to find a way to bite and it creeps me out too much. It's sad because MN and WI state parks and trails are pretty awesome and I hate missing out.
  • Huh, I was a tourist too. So when does a walk in the woods become a hike? - 10/2/2015 11:41:08 AM
  • What is the difference between a walk in the woods and a hike? I am soooo spoiled, I live 200 feet from the Bruce Trail (can't get there from here - have to travel to an access trail as the main trail runs along the cliff edge and my home is below on the lake shore. My Pixie has long ears, eyebrows, moustache, beard and long hair on the whole of her, I don't use the Bruce Trail from Mid Aug to Mid Oct to avoid the cockleburrs, but less than a mile from here is a mountain bike park with a year round plowed parking lot, a half year porta potty and marvelous interlocked trails, and few bikes ever. I can slip up there in my office clothes and sandals (not heels) and walk in shade 6 km on the smoothish gravelled trails, I can wear walking shoes and shorts and walk any of the other trails, 12 km without going over the same ground, some of it is very rough, much is hilly, but nothing mountainous. There is only one little patch of poison ivy,, some regular burdock in the trail head area but not them nasty little cockle burrs. A small cadre of loose dog walkers use the park every day of the year and snowshoes are required in season, but the trails are kept packed by usage., there is often 4 feet of snow to sink into if you should step of the trail without your snowshoes. LOL on a soft day the dog disappears, that keeps her on the trail. On the Bruce Trail long pants, long socks, boots required, the poison ivy sometimes meets over the treadway and it is everywhere. As you enter woods from any cleared area there are prickly canes (raspberry, blackberry, wild rose and just nasty) and burrs of every style just waiting for my Pixie or your golden. There are over 800 km of mostly pristine well marked trails many with spectacular views. I was shocked to discover that Zion had paved trails...even the Angel's Walk was a pretty tame trail -- lots of elevation one weird feeling standing out there with thousands of feet of air in three directions above and below, but still with tourists chatting behind me waiting for their turn out on the point. Huh...
  • Very good blog, but it left out one important thing - always let someone know where and when your going and when you expect to be back. Then If you run into trouble someone will know where to start looking for you.
  • This is a very good introductory article. A good way to get started with hiking is to join a hiking club or trail association - suddenly you have hundreds of people who would love to go for a hike with you! And it's a great way to meet new friends who share your interest in the outdoors. For those of you who live in Ontario, Canada, Hike Ontario is an organization that offers a "Safe Hiker" introductory course, as well as training to be a hike leader and wilderness hiking courses.
  • I "discovered" hiking early in my weight loss journey and I absolutely love it now. I hike almost every weekend with a Meetup group and have found some beautiful trails and really nice folks that way. I can't recommend it enough.
  • I grew up in the Sierra Gold Country. We hiked all over hill and dale when I was a kid. I still have friends who hike the High Sierra, and I'm always surprised when I can manage to keep up with them (even in the snow).

    As someone else stated earlier, it is important to know the 10 Essentials, to have a respect for the environment and the residents (like the mountain lions...who will most likely not hurt you unless you do something stupid), and leave no trace in the areas you visit.

    Humans are naturally nomadic. That's how we evolved. Moving through the wild areas of the US and Canada (or anywhere else that strikes your fancy) is the most natural and healthy thing you can do.
    Thanks for sharing.
  • Hiking is not for me.
  • A good walking stick (or two) will help you out as well, especially on uneven ground. Another thought... know the critters in the area and what to do when you run into them. If you are lucky enough to be hiking grizzly territory, skip the pepper spray and bring something with heavier stopping power unless you wish to provide him a condiment.
    This article is not intended to be a "one stop shop" for everything related to hiking--it is a basic introduction about the fitness benefits of hiking. We've included some additional links about safety, etc. at the bottom in other sparkpeople articles to help paint a more complete picture.
  • Everybody, please scroll down and read CamillaParis's comment below. Better advice in four sentences than in the entirety of the original article!
  • I really think that the dismissal of sunscreen should be edited for the sake of safety. It's dangerous to suggest that people can go out for hours with no sunscreen. Even if it were true that "most hiking is done in the shade," shade doesn't mean the absence of UV rays. I have gotten some quite spectacular sunburns sitting in deep, full shade; dappled shade from trees is no protection at all. If it's daytime and you're outdoors for more than an hour, you need sunscreen! And since UV exposure increases with altitude, it's doubly important if you're in the mountains (which is the only place you can find shaded trails in my state!)

    I really had to giggle at the idea that bug repellent could be more important than sunscreen. If you only hike in deep forest, they might be equal, but for those of us who hike desert, plains, mountains, or beaches, it's exactly the reverse. Skip bug repellent, have itchy bites for a week. Skip sunscreen, get skin cancer. Hmm.

    There's a lot of other safety information missing, as well. This seems to be geared toward hiking in tiny urban parks. Anyone hiking far enough to need a daypack needs to have enough supplies in it to survive the night if they get lost. There are several fatalities each year in our National Parks, and about 90% of them happen because a hiker thinks, "I don't need to take X. I'll only be out for a little while."

About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

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